Navarro volleyball

Daily Sun photo/Ron Farmer

Navarro's No. 2 ranked Bulldogs celebrate Monday as they improve to 19-0 with a four-set victory over rival Tyler.

Navarro's magical season continued Monday night when the Bulldogs stayed unbeaten and knocked off one of their biggest rivals to begin the most difficult -- and critical -- stretches of the season.

Monday's four-set victory (25-22, 24-26, 25-18, 25-18) over Tyler in a loud and wild Wolens SEC atmosphere would have been a statement match -- but the truth is, this Navarro team has been making statements all year.

Tyler, a bitter rival in the past, was just one more W on a growing pile. Oh, you can bet beating Tyler felt pretty good to the Bulldogs, who stormed the court in celebration after smashing the final point to close out the match. 

But everyone in the program knows there's a long way to go for this group that has taken Navarro volleyball to new heights this season. Monday's victory gives Navarro a 19-0 record and keeps the Bulldogs ranked No. 2 in the nation -- the highest ranking in the school's history.

They're not only unbeaten, but the Dawgs have swept 15 of their 19 matches, and lost only six sets all year. So losing 3-1 has to be a moral victory for a Tyler program that has slipped this season.

Last year all four teams in the Zone -- Navarro, TVCC, Panola and Tyler -- were ranked in the Top 20, but a new format this year eliminated Zone play and includes all the teams in the Region XIV conference. It also means that unlike in years past, Navarro no longer plays Tyler, TVCC and Panola twice in home-and-home battles.

That was Tyler's only chance to beat Navarro in the regular season. TVCC, ranked No. 11 in the nation, had it's only chance last week and was swept on its home court by the Bulldogs.

That sweep last Wednesday in Athens began a difficult and interesting stretch of matches for the Bulldogs, who played their two biggest rivals in back-to-back matches, and now have two conference showdowns against ranked teams  left in this four-match swing.

The Bulldogs play No. 18 Panola at 6 p.m. Wednesday back in the Wolens SEC, where a loud and wild atmosphere that's led by the Navarro band and cheerleaders and fueled by a growing fanbase that has gone hand-in-hand with the rise in the program over recent years will no doubt be in full force.

It's crazy and it's loud and at times it's crazy loud. Simply put: No one wants to play the Bulldogs in Corsicana.

After Panola comes a home game against No. 20 Blinn next Wednesday to complete the four-game swing against three nationally-ranked teams and Tyler, which is usually ranked in the Top 20.

Hall of Fame coach Ronda Shirley lifted the program off the ground the last two years, taking the Bulldogs from a six-win season in 2016 to winning more than 60 matches in her two years at Navarro, where her team won national prominence -- and made the first trip to the NJCAA national tournament in the school's history last year.

Shirley left and Andy Cavins entered, knowing exactly how big the shoes were to fill at Navarro, and having the exact size feet to fill them.

The Bulldogs, who have players ranked among the best in the nation statistically, dominate the play at the net, where Deja Arnold and Monica Wood are two of the hardest hitting players in the nation -- literally.

Arnold is ranked No. 2 in the NJCAA in hitting percentage (.509) and Wood is No. 5 with a .475 percentage. Arnold is also No. 6 in the nation in blocks per set.

Jordan Russell is No. 11 in the country in kills per set (3.9) and the woman who makes it all happen at the net is setter Emily Witt, who ranked No. 6 in the NJCAA in assists per set (10.65).

In Monday's victory over Tyler, Russell led the way at the net with 19 kills and two blocks and four assisted blocks. She also had nine digs.

Arnold had 12 kills, a solo block and seven assisted blocks, and Wood drove home 10 kills and had four assisted blocks. 

Witt had 48 assists and came up with 13 digs to go along with four kills and two assisted blocks, and Carla Boudal led the defense with 26 digs.

 Julia Siuta had nine kills, a solo block and two assisted blocks, and Patricia Pantola had nine digs.

Drilling teams has become commonplace for a program that has had plenty of ups and downs over the years, but Cavins has this group poised for a run at a national title.

Saying Cavins has done a remarkable job is a mind-boggling understatement. His team is talented and plays a relentless and intense brand of volleyball that's driven by passion and anchored by tremendous chemistry on and off the court.

And there's so much to do -- and so far for this team to go.

The goal is not to play at home, but to play in Hutchinson, Kansas, the site of the NJCAA national tournament.

Navarro has just six matches left after Wednesday's showdown with Panola  before the Region XIV Tournament begins in Tyler on  Nov. 1. The Region tournament is the doorway to Kansas and the national tournament that begins Nov. 15.

The road to Kansas continues at 6 p.m. Wednesday ...

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